Becky Lynch Returned — Was it Horrible or Genius?

Let’s say you were reading a book, and you stopped after every page to think about where the story was going. And while you were thinking, your concern wasn’t so much with the characters and their motivations as presented to you, but with what you think should have happened based mostly on second-hand rumors and speculation you’ve heard about the writer, who you assume to be a complete idiot even though they are wildly successful in their field. Would even the greatest book ever written actually seem good under those conditions? This offers some insight into how a lot of hardcore fans interact with WWE — they are the most myopic and reactionary people on earth. The plus side from WWE’s perspective is that makes them easily manipulated, and at last Saturday’s Summerslam event they pulled off a troll job for the ages.

Background:

Becky Lynch, my favorite wrestler, became pregnant last year and hasn’t been seen on TV since April 2020. At the time she stepped away from WWE, Becky was being pushed harder than anyone and she never actually lost her belt in a match, instead relinquishing it due to her pregnancy. While there was initially some doubt expressed by Becky herself over her future in wrestling, rumors have been swirling for a long time that she was on her way to a return, and fans were speculating heavily over how it would be done. Because Becky is very popular and had an infamous botched heel turn (reported on at the time by me) that catapulted her to success, the assumption made by everyone was that she’d remain a babyface.

With Becky out, WWE needed to create a new top babyface, and they went all in on Bianca Belair, who in many ways represents the perfect WWE wrestler. She has a cool look, she can talk, she’s a legitimate freakish athlete, she can do a variety of media appearances, and she was built as a wrestler from the ground up in their own performance center, which means she was trained into the WWE way of doing things and is a team player. Adding to Bianca’s current trendy feel is that she is a black woman, making her the company’s answer to popular athletes like Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka while also potentially crossing over to the massive hip hop audience by collaborating with rappers like Megan Thee Stallion. Belair won the Royal Rumble in January, beat Sasha Banks in a highly acclaimed match in a Wrestlemania main event for the Smackdown women’s championship, and has been flying high since with a streak of wins over various opponents. Summerslam was supposed to be the rematch between those two, but an unknown issue kept Banks out of the event, creating a domino effect that led to the controversial segment which I will try to recap very briefly.

First, WWE plays a hype package of the Banks/Belair feud, implying that the match is still on. Belair’s music hits and she does her usual entrance to the ring. Then the ring announcer says Sasha cannot compete and is being replaced by Carmella, an annoying low-card heel who Belair has already beaten roughly 800 times this year. Carmella comes out and the crowd is grumbling as it seems this nothing match is really what they’re getting instead of Sasha/Bianca. Then Becky’s music hits for the first time in a year and a half and the crowd goes nuts. Becky makes her entrance, and I note live that she is acting kind of weird (sort of being over-the-top happy with the fans in a way that seems disingenuous), but I don’t think a lot about it because it’s her first appearance back and she might just be really excited. Belair reacts to this similarly to the fans — she is putting over Becky as a legend she is thrilled to share the ring with. Becky looks at Bianca, then throws Carmella out of the ring, bashes her into the steel steps, and gets back in the ring to stare down Bianca and let the moment sink in. Then Becky grabs a mic and says (this is important): “what do you say we blow the roof off this joint, for the Smackdown women’s championship?” Bianca, being a typical babyface who takes on all challenges, accepts. The bell rings, they circle each other, then Becky extends her hand for a handshake. Belair accepts it, but Becky cheapshots Belair and hits another move to win the title from her in roughly 30 seconds.

Reaction to this has been uniformly negative. Anyone can google around to find discussion, but the short version is fans were extremely unhappy that the popular champion Belair got “squashed” and “buried.” They didn’t like that Becky, presumably a babyface, finally got her big return and instead of it being happy, it ended up being confusing and weird. They didn’t like that the match was so brief and wished they could have put on a great match for the fans. But I thought this was possibly genius, and will go over goals I think this segment accomplished that make me excited about the future.

Goal One: Turn Becky Lynch Heel

There have been casual discussions about whether Lynch could ever be a heel, and I didn’t think WWE would even try due to her popularity. Even now, arguably this is something they shouldn’t try, and I’m open to that critique of this segment. But I feel like she is in a different place now than last time they tried it, and there was no better way to get her “heat” than to have her be the Karen white lady who tramples all over the dream title reign of the top face who has come to represent Black Excellence in WWE.

A lot of this segment clicks into place when viewed as something that is supposed to make fans upset because it’s a heel turn. Becky’s behavior throughout is trollish, and the giveaway is her “let’s blow the roof off” line. She promises the crowd a great match, then wins in 30 seconds with an underhanded tactic. More of this will be fleshed out on TV, but early reports are that Lynch is indeed a heel and it was her idea to try it. Obviously I think very highly of Lynch as a performer and I’m actually glad she is doing something new and turning before she became fully stale to the audience.

Goal two: Progress Bianca Belair’s Character While Making Her Extremely Sympathetic

To this point, Belair has been a squeaky clean babyface whose weakness is that she is a bit gullible and can be taken advantage of. It’s pretty easy to imagine Becky sitting at home, watching Belair, and thinking she can manipulate her to get back the title in the exact way she did it. This type of setback should set off a fire in Belair; I expect her to come back with more of an edge.

Belair comes out of this situation with a visceral level of sympathy from the fans, most of whom are saying how disgusted they are that she got screwed by WWE out of her title while not even getting a match. There is some irony in seeing people say this is “horrible booking” while also having the exact emotions it was intended to evoke from them. And wrestling in the end is about creating strong emotions in the audience, even if it involves some trolling and possibly some logic breaks. This made people want to see Bianca get her title back in a powerful way, more so than if she just lost it in a straight up match. And because we know this is all pre-determined, nobody actually thinks Bianca is worse because she lost a quick match through underhanded tactics to a top star that tricked her.

The Ultimate Goal: Elevate Bianca Belair to Becky Lynch’s Level of Stardom

This sounds weird to say since she just dropped her title in 30 seconds, but the more I think about this, the more I think this story is WWE showing a tremendous amount of confidence in Bianca Belair. One reason it seemed insane to ever turn Lynch heel is that there wouldn’t be a babyface who could equal her (without a strong face, fans would just gravitate towards Lynch and cheer her instead). The way this played out indicates to me that WWE believes Bianca is likable enough and a strong enough character to make this work. And based on the initial anger and “Bianca deserves better” sentiment going around, it seems like they’re off to a very strong start. At the very least, it is worth watching this play out, especially given Lynch’s strengths as a character and on the microphone.

A lot of fans think this was a “burial” of Belair, which I find utterly absurd. WWE likes money, and they very obviously see a lot of money to be made from Belair, who is immensely marketable and talented. Comparisons have been made to when Kofi Kingston lost to Brock Lesnar a couple years ago, but that was a very different scenario where he lost in a more decisive fashion and was more obviously a guy they didn’t see as a top talent. What’s more likely is that WWE wants fans to think Belair is being buried as a way to generate sympathy for her. I realize it is hard for fans who are really invested in Belair to see it now, but from my standpoint it feels like this story is actually being done in service of Belair, to try to take her to another level.

Wrestling fans live in this weird bubble where they think it’s a good story for a babyface to beat everybody and never show weakness. In any other medium, a hero is defined by the obstacles they face and how they are able to overcome them. This was an obstacle for Bianca Belair and I suspect the end goal is her beating Lynch for the title in an actual match. This is WWE though, and this segment proved how much they like swerving the audience, so it’s often fruitless to try to speculate too far in the future. Either way, this angle created a lot of speculation, emotion, and intrigue, so it is hard for me to see how it was terrible unless you are someone who is purely getting worked by WWE.

To be clear, I like it when fans get worked and there isn’t any shame in it. Part of why I don’t like AEW is I don’t think anything they do provokes real reactions like this that almost exist outside of the wrestling universe. But there are fans who act like they know everything, always have negative knee-jerk reactions, and then get played like a fiddle, which will always be very funny to me. It’s possible I’m totally wrong about all of this (in which case I’ll delete this post later), but it seems like almost everyone commenting on wrestling — including the like 40+ year-old dudes who run wrestling sites and have devoted their whole life to covering this silly pseudo-sport — are wildly wrong about this angle and are judging the entire book after misinterpreting the first page.

Why Do I Hate AEW So Much?

Until about a year ago, the show I most enjoyed hating was The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s HBO opus about a TV news station where the host, Will McAvoy, was the last man with integrity on Earth. I argued for a long time that the show — completely unintentionally — was the funniest on TV due to its rare combination of sanctimony, casual misogyny, and Sorkin’s thinly veiled belief that he was writing the greatest TV show anyone has ever seen, even as it was often impossibly stupid. The joy of watching The Newsroom is seen in its most distilled form in a scene called “Don Tells the Pilot” (on YouTube at least) where two of the characters break the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death while on a plane. The construction of the scene shows Sorkin’s hilarious contempt for “common folk,” who are all portrayed as aimless sheep who would walk into an electric fence if not guided by the heroic journalists who have all the answers. The women in the scene are hysteric idiots or killjoys who need to be calmed by the intelligent men. And the final capper is one reporter’s bizarre reverence for the airplane pilot, who is seen as a heroic figure worthy of hearing the incredible news that nobody else knows.

The Newsroom was a perfect storm of hate-watching: it was smug, it thought it was much smarter than it really was, and when it tried to be intentionally funny it often revealed the writer’s retrograde sense of humor, which in and of itself was ironically amusing. But lately, it has been surpassed by my new favorite show to hate: AEW Dynamite.

When I last wrote about the upstart wrestling promotion, it was over a year ago, when the show was just getting off the ground. I didn’t like the show but was also trying to be open-minded about it. I respected the challenge in starting a new promotion and figured it might just need some time to work out the kinks. It took a few months of Dynamite getting progressively worse to come to a somewhat startling realization: I hate almost everyone on the show and most of the people who like it. While previous critiques were grounded in an attitude of “I hope they succeed, but it’s not for me,” I have moved to actively hoping it fails and the company goes bankrupt. This would be horrible for the wrestlers and the business as a whole, I understand. But the wrestlers are not me and it would make me happy.

The most positive thing to be said about AEW is that it was promoted and marketed brilliantly. The market leader, WWE, spent years driving off viewers and making many of the more hardcore fans resent the company, a trend that continues as childishly whining about their shows remains a staple of YouTube reviews, wrestling commentary sites, and random people on social media. AEW saw an opening in appealing to these sorts of bitter, resentful, probably lonely fans, and it decided to embrace them and make them feel like they were part of an uprising or a movement, even as the company was funded by a billionaire’s son using his dad’s money, which is about the least radical thing I can think of. AEW also mobilized parts of the wrestling media who influence opinions, making a show that directly appeals to their wishes which has led to consistently strong press. Before AEW even put on a show, they had a base of fans and critics who were convinced the company would replenish the barren wrestling fields and finally provide an alternative to the evil WWE.

To make an offensive comparison that will make most people who read this upset, I liken these AEW die-hards to QAnon supporters. At the start, they buy into an idea because it makes them feel good and like they’re part of a movement. Over time, it becomes more and more obvious that the movement is a load of crap and it becomes harder to justify on any level, but all of the people who bought the lie are in too deep and can’t accept reality or it will shatter the entire world they’ve constructed for themselves. So they continue to move the goalposts. Every seemingly conflicting piece of evidence has to be excused; every arrow that points to their views being wrong is ignored. To these people, AEW has to be good, because the alternative is being stuck with the evil WWE again, and also admitting they were wrong, which people don’t like to do.

This rabid, insane nature of the fan base provided some of the entertainment value of AEW before the pandemic removed crowds from TV. I would watch a segment that was obviously, clearly terrible — like, any rational person would see that it was embarrassing to have it on TV — and the fans would be cheering like it was a Beatles concert in 1964. When I watched Dynamite, I felt like I was learning something about human psychology, getting closer to figuring out how events like Jonestown happen. It was fascinating in a way. The same fans who make it known they despise WWE for its goofiness, bad booking, or subpar wrestling would suddenly be enraptured by all of it.

Being a bad show in and of itself is not a crime or something I would care about. But the smugness and bitterness in the AEW fan base is always there beneath the surface; the fans love to talk about how much better the show is than WWE, how “refreshing” it is to have “real wrestling” back, and how great it is to watch wrestlers who have “creative freedom” instead of being shackled by corporate oppression. This starts at the top with Tony Khan, who is a wrestling nerd that is awkwardly deferential to the viewers. Khan is a joke in the world of pro sports, where his teams all suck and he has shown no capability to lead, but these wrestling fans are giving him the validation he has always craved. In return, he gives them the show they want, full of goofy indie nonsense and matches that are purely exhibitions of moves with no selling or logic.

The way I see it, AEW could have been its own thing, but by constantly talking trash at WWE and insisting they were “the good guys,” they invited the comparisons. So I compare them to WWE and see a show that is much worse on almost every level. The one area where AEW has something going for them is that the show does have a little of that “anything can happen” vibe to it compared to the rigid structure of WWE, in part due to the complete unprofessionalism and cluelessness of everyone involved. Other than that, though, my expectation was that AEW would expose weaknesses in WWE, but instead I find myself appreciating WWE more now that I see an inferior company try to equal them.

I used to wonder why WWE didn’t let its wrestlers really go all-out in their matches, instead favoring a somewhat formulaic and safe style of wrestling. When I watch AEW, with its mind-numbing action, non-stop flips and contrived-looking moves, I understand why WWE limits its talents in order to make the moves register and make sense. Matches in AEW rarely have psychology or a story to them; there is never any sense of pacing or “less is more,” which is part of why the show always feels so indulgent. I always thought WWE should give talent more creative freedom and let them be unscripted on the mic. After watching WWE rejects like Miro utilize their newfound “freedom,” I understand why they didn’t have much creative input — because they’re stupid and their ideas suck. I also used to dislike WWE for being so biased towards big guys. It took watching AEW, where I believe I could beat up half the male roster in a real fight, to understand why Vince McMahon pushes who he does. The wrestlers in WWE look like professional wrestlers, not average nerd fans, and that makes a huge difference when it comes to suspending disbelief and being immersed in what’s going on.

The vast discrepancy in talent between the shows cannot be overstated. Almost everyone in WWE looks cool, has a distinct charisma, and knows what they’re doing in the ring. WWE’s roster is probably the most diverse in the history of wrestling; a look at their current champions shows a wide range of performers from different races and backgrounds. And this diversity goes deeper than skin color: the performers in WWE have their own moves, mannerisms, and quirks. When you watch a big WWE show, there is a little something for everyone; there can be a flippy cruiserweight match, two giant guys standing toe-to-toe, a technical mat-based match, etc. AEW’s roster, on the other hand, is the most bland and vanilla collection of largely interchangeable “talent” I’ve ever seen. Leading the charge are The Young Bucks, the self-proclaimed “best tag team in the world,” who are scrawny white guys who could only exist in a pro wrestling world where nobody believed in anything so it became a contest to see who can do the stupidest moves in every match. Nobody in any entertainment medium has made more money while having fewer positive attributes than The Young Bucks. Other highly featured wrestlers like Orange Cassidy, Joey Janela, and Darby Allin rely on doing horrendous comedy or moronic stunts because they are so not believable as fighters. These are guys who simply would not cut it in WWE, but they are able to carve out a space for themselves in the minor leagues of AEW. Which is fine, but if you go to a Toledo Mudhens game, nobody there acts like they’re watching a team that is better than the Dodgers.

The wrestlers who were in WWE and jumped over to AEW like Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley, and FTR, have mostly proved that they’re not as good as they thought they were. Jericho has aged rapidly and spends most of his time on the show doing heinous comedy sketches that look like a drunk guy sent in an embarrassing audition to SNL. Moxley is more controversial — I can’t deny that he is very popular and a lot of people like what he is doing in AEW, where he has abandoned wrestling actual matches so he can jump onto barbed wire, swing a baseball bat covered with barbed wire at people, or be in a match where the ropes are exploding barbed wire. I find this kind of “wrestling” ridiculous and silly, and so I’ve come to view Moxley less as a wrestler and more as a stuntman who is good at talking and convincing people that what he’s doing isn’t terrible when it obviously is, which in some ways makes him the perfect representative for AEW. As for FTR, they’re still a proficient tag team in the ring but their storylines on this show are even more nonsensical than what made them quit WWE. They had a feud with The Young Bucks where trying to determine who was the face and who was the heel was like trying to translate a Zodiac killer cypher.

I’m writing this post because I’m enjoying it, which is where most of my fascination with AEW lies now: why is it so fun to hate this company? What does it say about me, and my outlook on wrestling, that one of my current hobbies is trashing them? Are there lessons from this that I could possibly apply to art in other mediums? AEW just hits this sweet spot for me: it is not only very bad, but everyone involved in making it is fully convinced that it is the greatest thing anyone has ever done. This intersection of confidence and incompetence is where prime hate-watching happens. That’s why The Room is so popular, but unfortunately AEW isn’t even close to that level, and for the most part I now just keep up with the show via short clips online when I feel like laughing and being bewildered about what hardcore wrestling fans think is good.

I think AEW is also tapping into my tendency to be a fan of something while disliking a lot of other people who are fans of it, which has been a theme in my life as a nerdier person who doesn’t like nerds much. I land squarely in the coveted 18-49 male demographic that AEW is going after, but I rarely like entertainment that is so obviously aimed at me, and I’ve cringed at AEW’s Rick and Morty tie-ins and the way it has brought nerd culture into wrestling, with guys doing moves from Streetfighter and being inspired by anime. I like entertainment that gives me a different perspective and so have little desire to seriously watch a bunch of nerds make a show for nerds that makes me hate nerds. Of course, WWE also targets young males, but there is more of an attempt to appeal to a wide swath of people, and when shows had fans, the difference between an AEW crowd and a WWE one was stark.

Mostly, I’ve realized that wrestling is my outlet for wanting entertainment that is larger-than-life compared to my increasingly obscure music taste. I like the big stadium shows and the feeling with WWE that I’m watching the best talent on the highest stage. Nobody in AEW touches the likes of Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Bayley, Roman Reigns, Edge, Drew McIntyre, Bianca Belair, Rhea Ripley, Keith Lee, Bobby Lashley, etc, and the production quality and spectacle of WWE is unmatched. AEW could have made up for this gap if it told really emotional, artful stories with strong characters that you could believe in, but to say they’ve fallen short of that is an understatement. Everything in AEW feels goofy and fake, and the show really makes no effort to engage with the audience on an emotional level. Nobody actually hates any of the heels, or really likes any of the faces, in the sense that they want to see them win more than anything. The show only exists to be “good wrestling” to a portion of the fanbase who hates WWE and thinks wrestling is about doing the most moves and doing the coolest stunts. But if none of the moves or stunts actually make the audience feel something, how is that good wrestling?

Daniel Bryan, who is a wrestling genius, once had an exchange on Twitter with author Naomi Klein, where he argued that wrestling is a medium that actually encourages deep empathy in the audience in contrast to its reputation as a redneck spectacle. He knows better than anyone: when Daniel Bryan got red-hot in WWE a few years ago, it was because the audience really cared about him and wanted to see him be champion. And WWE, while it tried to fumble the story numerous times, was able to string the audience along, to make them have real emotions about what they were watching even though it was “fake wrestling.” I don’t believe AEW is capable of telling such a story, because nobody in the company has shown any capacity for storytelling and getting the audience invested at a level deeper than chanting “this is awesome” after someone crashes through a table covered in barbed wire and thumbtacks. While AEW is supposed to be this “revolution” of wrestling, it is really doing the stereotypical version of wrestling that non-fans make fun of. Until they can tell a story with some actual emotional resonance, the only reason for me to watch will be to laugh at it.

Wrestling Without Fans is the Last Entertainment Standing

Part of why wrestling is a somewhat in-demand TV product right now is that it has new content every single week no matter what. There is never an off-season and the whole business has a deeply engrained “the show must go on” mentality — WWE often touts how it has had a new episode every week for the last 20+ years. This is why, even during a global pandemic that has shuttered sporting events across the globe, wrestling keeps on happening in its cockroach-like way. In the last couple weeks, both WWE and AEW ran shows without an audience for the first time, with limited personnel on hand. The results have been weird, to say the least.

Wrestling’s lifeblood is the crowd reactions, and most of my posts have centered on how the art form is so heavily based on manipulating the audience and getting them invested in matches. One of the reasons I watch is for those really heated emotional moments on either end of the spectrum, whether it’s the entire crowd hating Brock Lesnar or rejoicing when he gets beaten. Needless to say, without a live audience, those moments don’t exist. So what’s left?

As it turns out, there have been obvious downsides, but also some surprising revelations from this experiment. To start with the negatives, the matches are tough to get into without a crowd reacting at specific spots. AEW’s first show without fans seemed to solve this issue by having wrestlers serve as a de facto audience, rooting on the good guys or bad guys based on their alignment, which led to a show with much more energy than WWE’s approach that had empty chairs in the background at their Performance Center and a clear apocalyptic vibe. But due to the CDC recommendations on crowd gatherings, that was nixed last night, so now both shows are running with as few people around the ring as possible.

AEW’s matches have suffered less, because they tend to be more focused on athleticism and back-and-forth action than WWE’s, which are typically about advancing a story and engaging the crowd in a battle of good against evil. With so many hours of TV to fill and with not a ton of people on hand, WWE has been using their extensive back catalogue of old pay-per-view matches to fill time and pace the shows a bit, seemingly recognizing that the no-crowd matches weren’t particularly fun to watch. Both shows have tried to find creative ways to mimic a crowd. AEW had a backstage room with wrestlers cheering for others, while WWE has put various people on guest commentary and had them cheering for specific wrestlers and advancing a story. These are decent band-aid attempts given the restrictions, but nothing that really comes close to matching the feeling of a live crowd being into a match.

This hasn’t all been negatives, though. In fact, one part of the show has actually improved. WWE has let loose their best promo people in these weeks and they’ve thrived without having an obnoxious crowd interrupting them or trying to make the show about themselves. As a huge fan of promos, this period has been a goldmine for me: wrestlers like Bray Wyatt, Edge, and Becky Lynch have cut some of their better promos, because the quiet setting lends an intimacy and intensity to the proceedings that isn’t there typically. Instead of playing to a crowd, these confrontations are just between the wrestlers, and it makes them feel more like real-world conflicts. I noticed even non-wrestling-fans on Twitter were observing that no-audience wrestling resembled some kind of bizarre stripped-down theater production.

WWE has the advantage of currently building up to¬†WrestleMania, their big stadium spectacle that will now take place in an empty arena. AEW has less of a clear direction (and just doesn’t emphasize promos as much as WWE), so they haven’t been as successful in this regard. I also have felt since the beginning that AEW’s boisterous crowds have covered up a lot of the show’s flaws — when an audience is cheering wildly, it has a psychological effect on many where they convince themselves it’s great, and a lot of fans are so happy for a major league non-WWE show that they cheer for everything.

I really felt this in the final segment of AEW’s last show, which involved Broken Matt Hardy, a ridiculous, campy character that caught on with wrestling fans because of its over-the-top wackiness. Hardy signed with WWE a few years ago, they never “got” the character, so now he’s jumped ship to bring it back and show off his brilliant creative mind. His first promo, with no audience, felt like the worst segment in the history of wrestling to me — it was like watching really bad children’s theater. Without fans going wild for Hardy and cheering for his outlandish character, shouting his catch phrases, the curtain was pulled back and I realized this is an idiotic gimmick that already feels stale. In the moment, I hated this segment more than anything, but I can’t even tell if it’s a fair assessment because of the lack of fans. My guess is a lot of stuff I have loved in wrestling would not seem nearly as good if it had played to an empty arena.

These shows feel like they’re on borrowed time: both have been operating in Florida, which is going to enforce a stay-at-home order, and obviously if a wrestler tests positive for Covid-19 it all likely stops. WWE has recorded a bunch of their shows in advance through Wrestlemania, at which point we will probably enter the first wrestling hiatus in forever. When the wrestling stops, that’s when you know things are going really bad.